Creating a Buzz Around Beekeeping

Kameha Bell conducts a winter check of the honeybees in her Silver Spring hive.
Kameha Bell conducts a winter check of the honeybees in her Silver Spring hive. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006

Like many young working moms, Kameha Bell has a lot of demands on her time. It is safe to say, though, that she has a few more mouths to feed than most.

Lifting the lid off her single white beehive, in the corner of her Silver Spring yard, she sees a cluster of honeybees atop the hanging frames of honeycomb. They have huddled by the thousands to try to stay warm and make it through the winter. On a bright winter's afternoon, Bell pries up the frames to see if the cluster and the honey are cheek by jowl, because the bees need to feed on the honey through the winter. "Honey right by them," she says. "That's the important thing."

Nearby, and wearing similar white overalls, hat and veil, veteran beekeeper Marc Hoffman is happy, too -- not just for Bell's hive, but for all that she represents to the hobby of beekeeping.

Honeybees are the last livestock in city and suburb. But the ranks of beekeepers are dwindling; retiring hobbyists are not being replaced as they once were, in part because keeping bees is more demanding than ever. Pests, diseases and diminished areas of foraging habitat have made it difficult for bees to survive without human intervention. The loss of colonies, in turn, has discouraged fair-weather keepers.

"It's not an automatic situation now where you put the box out like grandpa did in the spring and you still have bees in the fall," said Billy Davis of the Loudoun Beekeepers Association. "Doesn't work anymore."

In an attempt to recruit new beekeepers like Bell, area beekeeping clubs in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia have organized courses over the next few weeks that will show beginners how to build hives and frames, populate them with bees and harvest summer honey.

"We have to keep pushing the envelope to get more of the 30- to 50-year-olds," said Pat Haskell, who, with Davis, is one of the instructors in Northern Virginia. Of a class of 20 new beekeepers, Haskell said, only three will still be active after five years. "It's devastating for young beekeepers to have their colonies die on them. After it happens several times they just quit."

Bell, on the other hand, is off to a good start and seems poised for a lifetime in the company of bees. Her husband's grandfather was a longtime beekeeper in Baltimore until a move to a condominium left him seeking an heir for his hives and equipment. He chose Bell, 31, who jumped at the chance. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health and thus well disposed to the scientifically curious world of beekeeping. In the first year, the bees died, prompting Bell to enroll last winter in the seven-week beginner's course organized by the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association. She also attends monthly meetings to glean seasonal advice from experienced beekeepers.

A faithful novice, she has been medicating the bees against two parasitic mite species and feeding them sugar water, making sure the colony grew strong before the winter. The reward for this effort has been 50 pounds of clear, light honey from the single hive, a healthy winter colony and the deep satisfaction of a textbook success after a shaky start.

There is a certain satisfaction in giving family and friends homemade honey. "We gave my grandfather-in-law honey, which was a big turnaround," she said, laughing.

Honey isn't the only way bees help us. They are highly efficient pollinators and a boon to fruit and vegetable gardeners, who rely on cross-fertilization for everything from cucumbers to apples.

Honeybees are not aggressive stingers like wasps, saving their venom for those who raid their hives; hence the suits and veils for keepers. Still, they are not welcome in some neighborhoods. The District does not allow beekeeping, and in the suburbs, homeowner associations often prohibit the pastime in townhouse and condominium communities.

This stricture isn't necessarily an impediment: Tom Berry lives in a townhouse in Lake Ridge but has arranged to keep 12 hives with a farmer in Lorton, seven miles from his home.

Berry is one of the organizers of the classes in Northern Virginia, where seasoned beekeepers will act as mentors to novices.

The lessons peak in April with the delivery of a queen and a package of bees -- three pounds of worker bees that are poured into an empty hive just in time for the frenzy of spring blossom, with its promise of pollen and nectar.

Bell said she is looking forward to introducing her 4 1/2 -month-old daughter, Elsa, to the joy and wonder of beekeeping in the years ahead. "She doesn't know it yet," Bell said, "but she loves bees."

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